US Backs Away from Blanket Laptop Ban, Imposes New Airline Security Regime Instead

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By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She now spends much of her time in Asia and is currently researching a book about textile artisans. She also writes regularly about legal, political economy, and regulatory topics for various consulting clients and publications, as well as scribbles occasional travel pieces for The National.

The United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) backed away yesterday from imposing a wider airline laptop ban, and instead announced new security measures, both seen and unseen, that will be implemented at last-point-of-departure airports in 105 countries around the world for flights to the United States.

The measures will cover 280 airports, affect an average of 2100 flights daily, and apply to an average of 325,000 passengers daily, according to this DHS fact sheet.

In March, the United States banned laptops, tablets, and other electronics devices larger than a standard smartphone from cabin baggage on flights from 10 Middle Eastern airports. The United Kingdom followed with a similar– but not identical– measure covering six countries and fourteen carriers.

Many, including Moon of Alabama (see here), saw the US ban as a form of protectionism targeting leading government-backed Middle Eastern airlines Emirates, Qatar Airways, and Etihad Airways, thus fulfilling a pledge Trump had made to CEOs from three US airlines, as I discussed in this post, Airline Cabin Laptop Ban: More Security Theater?

That rationale, however, doesn’t convincingly explain the UK’s ban, which doesn’t cover the three Middle Eastern airlines, and in fact, also applies to some British Airlines flights.

Both the US and UK bans were also heavily criticised for requiring passengers to check their devices in the hold, with security experts warning that this practice would increase the risk that fires that might start in lithium batteries embedded in the devices would be difficult to control. That fire risk was considered by many to be more real and serious than the terrorism risk that the ban purported to address.

In addition, businesses and individuals objected to surrendering control over their devices, concerned about possible theft either of the devices themselves or of confidential data stored therein. Since the ban was imposed, there has been a drop in demand for the targeted flights (see, for example, this account in The National Emirates cuts flights to US over laptop ban).

New Policy Forestalls Wider Laptop Ban

Over the last several months, the US has reportedly mulled extending the device ban to flights originating in European airports. As the Financial Times reports in US demands tougher airline security but avoids laptop ban, the revised policy– which merely steps up security procedures — represents a major victory for European countries and carriers:

One European airline official predicted “chaos, at least to begin with”, saying there were questions over the cost of new security equipment and whether passengers transferring on their way to the US would need to be screened twice. But the official added: “We’re absolutely relieved that this is not a laptop ban, and that this is a worldwide measure, not one that is EU focused. A laptop ban would have caused fire hazards if they were packed in the hold, and those issues were never resolved.”

Jerri-Lynn here: Please allow me a bit of a personal aside here. It’s not just the Europeans, but also this frequent traveller who breathes a big sigh of relief that for the moment, travellers will still be able to pack electronic devices in their cabin baggage- especially as I write these words while sitting in Hong Kong, having flown from Kolkata on Tuesday via Bangkok. One of my bags made it, but alas, the other still has not– more than 2 full days after I arrived– and despite my persistent follow-up efforts, no one seems to have any idea where my bag is or when I’ll see it again. And I was just told that I must wait 7 days before I’ll be eligible for anything by way of compensation.

So, I can only imagine the nightmare that would result if a wider electronics ban were to be imposed, either on all flights into the US, or more widely.

New DHS Policy

The new security regime includes these elements:

  • Enhancing overall passenger screening;
  • Conducting heightened screening of personal electronic devices;
  • Increasing security protocols around aircraft and in passenger areas; and
  • Deploying advanced technology, expanding canine screening, and establishing additional preclearance locations.

Airlines that fail to comply with the new requirements face a total ban on passengers being allowed to carry electronics devices with them on flights to the United States– whether in the cabin, or checked in the hold.

Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said these are just some of the new security measures that will be rolled out. Yet one line in today’s Reuters report on the new policy, U.S. unveils enhanced airline security plan to avoid laptop ban, makes me wonder how well-considered this policy actually a is: “U.S. carriers said they would follow the new security directive, but industry trade group Airlines for America (A4A), criticized Homeland Security for not working more closely with them on the new policies.”

In remarks delivered yesterday, Kelly invoked the terrorism specter as the rationale for the extended procedures:

We cannot play international whack-a-mole with each new threat. Instead, we must put in place new measures across the board to keep the traveling public safe and make it harder for terrorists to succeed.

Now, if these measures are indeed well-considered and necessary, then why confine them only to flights to the United States? I turn again to the Reuters report, which addresses exactly this question: “European airline groups said in a document reviewed by Reuters that if the threats are confirmed, the restrictions should be deployed to cover all EU departing flights, not just U.S.-bound flights.”  I suggest in future that more and more flights will be subject to similar procedures.

Timetable Unspecified

The DHS declined to spell out a firm timetable for airlines to implement the new security measures, with Al Jazeera reporting, “officials would only say that they would give adequate time for the airlines to adapt”, in US toughens airport security for foreign flights.

In some cases, the required changes would be minor; in others, more comprehensive overhaul is necessary. According to the FT account cited above:

“We believe every airline and every airport in the world can meet these standards in a very short period of time if they chose to do so,” a senior official at the department of homeland security said on Wednesday, adding the US will work with airlines and airports to implement the measures. “Whether they want to do it in 24 hours or six months, it’s up to them.”

Reuters, however, reports that airlines must implement increased explosive trace detection screening within 21 says and comply with other security measures, including enhanced screening of airline passengers, within 120 days.

As to those ten airports affected by the original March US ban, the FT reports, “US officials said these 10 have already indicated they will seek to implement the new measures ‘aggressively’ in order to have the ban lifted.”

US Presses for Enhanced Pre-Screening Role 

As part of the new security measures, the US is also pressing to increase “pre-clearance” immigration measures manned by US Customs and Border Patrol officials stationed at the origin airport to process US-bound passengers before they board their international flights.

Such arrangements are already in place in 15 airports in 6 countries, including Canada, Ireland, and the United Arab Emirates. Al Jazeera notes– drolly I think– that this proposal “raises sensitive sovereignty issues to have US law enforcement officials operate inside another country.”

Indeed.

 

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27 comments

  1. Jeff

    despite my persistent follow-up efforts, no one seems to have any idea where my bag is or when I’ll see it again

    This sounds crazy. I have heard and lived through many cases of ‘lost luggage’, but in all cases, the airline was always perfectly aware where the bag was. The amount of time to recover it is indeed a different issue.

    Reply
    1. justanotherprogressive

      Unfortunately, I have been through more than one instance of where the airline lost my luggage and didn’t know where it was. Those paper stickers they put on your bags sometimes fall off or get torn off due to rough treatment……

      Reply
  2. MsExPat

    Sorry about your bag. Hong Kong is usually good about sorting these things promptly. However as you probably noticed, we are in Xi Jinping lockdown at the moment in Hong Kong–could that be affecting your luggage return?

    If you are still here at the weekend come join us at the July 1 march!

    Reply
    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      Thanks. I’m due to fly to Vietnam on Sat– but may have to delay that plan if my bag doesn’t turn up. In that case, I may very well join you.

      Reply
      1. fajensen

        And I was just told that I must wait 7 days before I’ll be eligible for anything by way of compensation.

        Be aware that you can actually get compensation immediately, you of course need to buy replacements for the things that were in the bag. Can’t go to meetings without clothes and so on. They have a voucher for that to spend in the airport. Up to about 1400 EUR they can do right there, 5-700 is normal. I once got a new suit that way.

        AFAIK the standard rate is about 130 EUR per day the luggage is missing up to the 7 days where insurance takes over (yours or theirs).

        Air-france lost my daughters luggage for 4 days, which was a nice bonus to her holiday. Of course they make you claim it via the worst pig of a web-page I ever encountered (because they want you to say “fuck it” and do the travel insurance instead, most would because I could only get it to work in Chrome) – but – because of that I got really motivated to send that form in just to sabotage their sabotage.

        And write them a nasty letter on paper on the quality of their customer service, certified mail too, just to annoy even more.

        Reply
        1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

          That’s how it worked w/ Turkish Airlines the last time a bag of mine was delayed– it didn’t make it on to the plane and I had to wait until the next flight to my destination before it arrived. But I knew where it was.

          My experience this time with Thai Airways has been terrible. I have asked several times how to make a compensation claim for the things I needed to replace immediately and they simply will not answer me.

          I’ll of course never fly with them again if I can help it– which is a pity, b/c the flight experience otherwise was fine. The seats were large and comfortable in steerage, the service was friendly, the movies worth watching, and the food more than edible.

          The point of mentioning my small problem was to imagine the massive mess that a wider laptop ban would create. glad that has been put to rest, at least for the moment.

          Reply
  3. diptherio

    Al Jazeera notes– drolly I think– that this proposal “raises sensitive sovereignty issues to have US law enforcement officials operate inside another country.”

    Yeah, jeez, US officials operating inside another country…sounds controversial. Good thing our military isn’t operating in 137 countries around the globe, that would probably raise even more sensitive issues than a few customs officials.

    Reply
  4. justanotherprogressive

    And will all this new “security enhancement” actually work? Not likely. TSA thinks “conventionally”, while terrorists think “unconventionally”…….all it will do is crapify flying even more….

    Reply
  5. oh

    Every Administration wants to whip the same horse harder and harder. Hopefully, people will learn to fly less. Of course, that’ll never happen!

    Reply
  6. Lune

    In the hands of a different administration, I might be inclined to give DHS the benefit of the doubt, that maybe they have some classified info that makes these restrictions necessary. But given their past history of stupid security theater and the current braintrust running things, I doubt it.

    But that leaves the question of why? The original laptop ban could be explained as punishing middle east carriers that were encroaching on lucrative international routes. But what self interest is served with this?

    Also, I’ll stake good money that 9/11 will be the last time an airplane is used as a missile. It’s far easier to smuggle a chemical warhead onto a cargo ship in Malaysia and have it detonate in the port of LA before any customs official has even done their cursory check. Several million Americans dying a gruesome sarin-poisoned death in a port city is far more likely than someone smuggling a tiny explosive into a flight inside a laptop.

    Heck, probably even easier to hack into a nuclear power plant, disable the safety systems, and induce a chernobyl-style criticality event. All from the comfort of one’s home in China, N. Korea, or indeed, a cafe in Paris with good wifi and a killer croissant.

    And yet as always, we spend billions to fight the last war…

    Reply
    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      I keep repeating– yes to the idea that the original US ban was directed at the big three Middle Eastern carriers. But I ask, why did the UK impose its ban? It didn’t include those three carriers at all, and it did include British Airways’ flights from the targeted airports. It’s a very weird form of protectionism indeed when you punish your own airlines and leave their major competitors alone.

      Reply
      1. Bill Smith

        There already have been laptop bombs.

        Daallo Airlines Flight 159 and some think Metrojet Flight 9268.

        Reply
    2. Blennylips

      Why? Hmmm, electronics moving from one place to another, sounds familiar….

      Leaked Documents Show NSA Compromising Computer Hardware And Communication Technology On A Massive Scale

      Cisco Shipping Equipment to Fake Addresses to Foil NSA Interception

      NSA reportedly intercepting laptops purchased online to install spy malware

      You never know who’s getting on that next flight! Opportunity knocks.

      One of these would make a great little workshop, git’er done during the flight.

      Tailored Access Operation indeed.

      /[s + ~s]/2

      Reply
    1. Lambert Strether

      The identification our elites, especially the Blobby types, have with Israel, never ceases to amaze me.

      Why, it’s as if our elites see themselves as a tiny number of people surrounded by enemies….

      Reply
    2. Pavel

      I never understand the fixation with “bombs on planes”. Admittedly it can cause (and has caused) airborne disasters with many killed (e.g.. Lockerbie). But the plane typically holds about 350 people at most. Terrorists will learn that it’s not worth the trouble to try to escape airport security and just focus on other, “softer” targets — cf the recent “car attacks” in Germany, France, and the UK. Or just attack the airport itself, with 3 *thousand* not 3 hundred victims.

      What is the answer? As Chomsky says, the first thing is to stop acting like a terrorist oneself. A US attack killed 300 civilians in the mideast just the other day. Oops. Obama’s (and now Trump’s) drones have killed thousands of innocent people.

      I’m all for security — and as a very frequent flier especially on planes — but it must be part of a larger, rationale strategy. I was at Narita the day of the “shoe bomber” those years ago and they quickly added additional security. The shoe bomber himself was known to the CIA and allowed on the plane for god’s sake!

      Sigh… what a world. I’m thankful I’m old enough to have travelled extensively around the world. I suspect the golden age of travel is over.

      Reply
  7. teri

    Well, shit, if the US wants to impose a no-fly zone on itself, I’m sure many people around the planet will be just as happy to abide by that. Probably wish we’d impose a no-flying-out zone as well to keep us Yanks inside our own borders. Might not be so great for the economy, but hey, that’s what tax cuts for the wealthy are for.

    Reply
  8. flora

    This sort of security theater is one of the reasons personal cloud storage devices are gaining popularity. They are the size of a standard external hard drive, are networked and configured by you on the manufacturer’s website – much like a home router. You can backup data, copy data, retrieve data from your cloud device at home from anywhere by either computer or smartphone.

    One caveat: they usually do not come with decent (or any) configuration instructions. Go online for instructions and access to the configuration page. Be sure to secure them by at least turning off the public face option. Password protect them with a strong password (and possibly with encryption, depending on how it’s to be used).
    Here’s one example: (this is not an endorsement of this particular device over another brand.)

    https://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2424967,00.asp

    Reply
    1. Lambert Strether

      But I’ve got terabytes of data. Theoretically, I’d love to upload everything to “the cloud,” store a second backup locally, fly with a clean machine in my carry-on, and then download and reinstall everything from the cloud.

      But how long would that take? And what happens if my connection is at all sketchy?

      Reply
      1. Pavel

        Lambert, surely you don’t need those terabytes when you travel?

        I travel constantly on business with my laptop. If the laptop ban were to go ahead I’d get a mini-SSD hard drive and copy everything to that. For Mac users there is a very nifty backup tool (Carbon Copy Cloner) which will make a bootable copy on a hard drive which could then be plugged into a new macbook at one’s destination. Cumbersome and expensive (2 laptops) but I’m damned if I’m going to check my laptop into the hold.

        Reply
  9. reslez

    Anyone who’s flown international out of a US airport like JFK compared to a European airport like Paris-CDG has witnessed the difference between lackadaisical TSA “security” and airports who take their job a bit more seriously. Ones that actually bother to swipe down the bags to detect explosives residue and routinely inspect the nooks and crannies of your luggage by hand. If this is a step toward making our TSA a bit less obviously security theatre I’m in favor of it. Surveillance state comes along with that, but it was already there thanks to growing demands from Customs to steal everyone’s personal data at the border.

    I know there’s speculation about the US side of this coming from a desire to steal passengers from superior Middle Eastern airlines. However we also know that Trump was concerned enough about the possibility of explosives in electronics that he discussed it in the White House with the Russians (thanks to the security state for leaking that, so we know Trump cares about security or is at least informed enough about the topic to be aware of it). So I gather there truly are concerns about explosives on planes. There’s certainly no shortage of angry individuals who’d happily blow up themselves and everyone around them.

    Reply
    1. Ohnoyoucantdothat

      Hate Paris CDG. Almost came to blows there with an inspector who insisted on slamming my very expensive cameras on the table. Told him if he did that again I would come across the table and beat the crap out of him. That got his attention.

      Reply
  10. Ohnoyoucantdothat

    For years, I used to break down my large tower computer and carry all the parts with me in a large, very old Hartman briefcase. The only thing I had in both Crimea and the states was an IPS 23″ monitor for photo editing and the tower case. Got some serious stares from security and an occasional swabbing for bomb residue but never had anything confiscated. However, with all the crap about laptops and copying drives, this year I bought a whole new PC in the states and only carry a single 2 TB hard drive with my Lightroom database for the current years images and a Touro 1 TB backup drive just in case. One goes in the briefcase and the other goes in my camera bag. Haven’t started encrypting yet but that’s the next step. I’ll set up the keys on my Crimea computer and use the public key to encrypt before I leave the states. Not carrying the private key so can’t be forced to divulge it. As added security, might give private key to friend in Crimea and erase from my machine there. Really starting to feel paranoid about this. Something just isn’t right here. And I will never put anything of real value in my checked luggage. Standard procedure is to find one of those inspection flyers in my bag when I get home and the bag ransacked. Must be on a list somewhere. They always rip open the plastic bags protecting the big bottle of KC Masterpiece BBQ sauce. No disasters yet but only a matter of time until one explodes.

    Reply
    1. Propertius

      I tried to do this with a STAR-100 back in the day, but I couldn’t get it out of the building. ;-)

      Reply

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